One of the key themes of Galatians is identity. The identity of the Jews was very much wrapped up in the Law—the rite of circumcision being a significant sign of this identity. While circumcision is not an issue in the church today, the principle of what Paul says regarding circumcision is applicable to many situations in the church today.
Circumcision was at the center of the Jews’ identity, and Paul uses it as a symbol of the entire system of Old Testament Law. Originally, God gave circumcision (the cutting off of the male foreskin) to Abraham and his descendants—the people of Israel—as a sign of their covenant. Circumcision set Jews apart from the Gentiles, marking them as the special people of God. But, is circumcision something that Christians have to do to be saved and included among the people of God? This was a vexed question for the early church, and one that Paul addresses.
“Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing” (Galatians 5:2). Paul is telling the Galatians that if they as Gentile believers submit to circumcision because of the suggestion of the Judaizers, they will have lost their faith. Instead of trusting in Christ alone for salvation, they would be relying on their own works. Paul informs them that they cannot mingle salvation by grace alone with the false righteousness that comes through works of the flesh. If the Galatians got circumcised, they would be turning their backs on Christ’s work on the cross.
Are we saved by faith, or are we saved by obeying the laws and fulfilling the rituals of the Old Covenant or any other traditions however ancient or modern? Paul is not actually against circumcision or the observation of religious traditions in and of themselves. We see this in Acts 16:3 when he circumcises Timothy. In Acts 21:26 he shaves his head before visiting the Temple. It is only when someone is coerced into doing works of the flesh in order to earn salvation that Paul is against these traditions. There is nothing wrong with keeping the Sabbath, getting circumcised, obeying the commandments, etc. It is only when these things are required for salvation or merit with God that they become wrong.
Some churches preach that people have to dress a certain way in order to be saved. They feel that if someone dresses “inappropriately,” they are sinning and damned to hell. This kind of thinking actually teaches people to rely more on outward appearances and behaviors than on faith in Christ.
In Christ, believers have a new identity that is not linked to any work of the Law: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15).
Some might argue that Abraham, the father of faith, was circumcised. However, according to Genesis 15:6 and Romans 4:3, “Abraham believed God and it was counted unto him for righteousness.” This happened thirteen years before he was circumcised. Abraham was made righteous because of his faith, not because of circumcision. Abraham’s identity is found in his faith not in his circumcision: “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham…those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham” (Galatians 3:7). It was not because Abraham was circumcised that he received the promises of God, but because he believed God.
The Judaizers did not understand the point and purpose of the Law. They thought the Law was a place of believer’s identification. But the Law was never meant to be that. Abraham’s identity was not wrapped up in the Law. But Israel as a nation had missed this. Their identity was wrapped up in rituals like circumcision rather than in the faith of their founding father. The founding father of the church is Christ, the “Seed” of Abraham (Galatians 3:16), and it is through faith in Him that we are saved and live out our new identities as sons of God.
The question for believers today is: where do you place your identity? Is your identity wrapped up in which version of the Bible you use and how many chapters of the Bible you read? In how often you go to church or what denomination you are a part of? In how much you give or serve? In whether you permit skirts to be worn above the knee or tattoos to be worn at all? What things other than faith in Christ might you be putting your trust in? Paul says this: “you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29).